'It's like city council meets Jerry Springer' in a divided Black Diamond | KUOW News and Information

'It's like city council meets Jerry Springer' in a divided Black Diamond

Feb 14, 2017

Mary Ann and Bill McDermand moved to Black Diamond 23 years ago for the peace, tranquility and the strong sense of community. Their kids used to play with the neighbors kids, she said, “and we just got along good with everybody.”


Today, it’s much different.

“People that used to be our friends, now we don’t talk to," said Mary Ann McDerman. "If you see somebody, say for instance, at the post office, that you used to, ‘Hi, how are you?’ now you just walk right by them. And most of the time, they won’t speak to us.”

When the McDermands moved to Black Diamond, a tiny town in southeast King County, most residents liked it the way it was. But developers had other ideas.

Growth in Seattle, Renton and Kent meant more people looking for homes in southeast King County. The largest of the developers (formerly called Yarrow Bay, now called Oakpointe), wanted to replace the forests around Black Diamond with 6,000 new houses.

It would quadruple the size of a town that has no freeways and no light rail stops, making it one of the largest developments in the county's history.

Black Diamond is known for its small town feel and its mining history.
Credit KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott

Over time, the development has turned neighbors against each other. “Oh, some of the words that’s been said, it’s just unbelievable,” said Bill McDermand, “I mean, it would make a sailor embarrassed to hear some of this stuff going ‘round here. It’s just terrible!”

KUOW’s Region of Boom team will spend about a month in Black Diamond, to see how growth is affecting that community. 

Where should we go next? Tweet @kuow using #RegionOfBoom.

The McDermands have stopped visiting the community center, which they used to enjoy, because they say it’s full of people who support the development or at least think it’s not the end of the world to let it go forward.

For some of those people, it’s been a journey. Some of them tell me they originally opposed the development.

For others, like Black Diamond resident Patrick Nelson, the benefits of working with the developer are obvious. Nelson met me in the coffee shop where he sometimes meets with clients for his marketing firm. The Oakpointe development would bring similar shops to Black Diamond. “It’s going to come whether we want it or not, so we should just embrace it,” said Nelson. 

Black Diamond resident Patrick Nelson says the new development will be good for his town. The coffee shop where he meets clients is in a new development in nearby Maple Valley.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Nelson said the development will be good for his town because of all the open space it will preserve and make accessible with new trails and parks.

The developer’s brightly colored illustrations help make that case. They show young kids climbing on boulders on a green lawn in a common area between brand new homes. Everywhere, people are outside – riding bikes, walking dogs, or just sitting at a café table enjoying the sunshine.

That’s how developers market the suburbs these days. The people in these pictures aren’t just escaping the city. They’re escaping into nature.

Nelson said we need to welcome all those people in those promotional posters to Black Diamond, just like his family was welcomed into the small town community 14 years ago. “And with the development coming,” he told me, “it can still have that small town community feel. Just more residents to enjoy.”

Nelson’s support for the project gets him in trouble sometimes. At a local restaurant, someone called him names. “And I just laughed. And I’m like, ‘Okay buddy, have a good day. Oh, by the way, when the new development comes, please don’t step foot on it, because you don’t like it.’”

Infill development projects have helped Black Diamond stay financially comfortable in recent years, according to the mayor. The Oakpointe development will help the city even more. But there are also long term infrastructure costs associated with growth.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Those deep divisions help explain how City Council meetings often devolve into shouting matches between the mayor and council members on either side.

On one side is the three-person City Council majority. They want to slow the developer down so the city doesn’t get taken advantage of.

On the other side, is the mayor and two City Council members.

Mayor Carol Benson said the developer has a legal right to build this project. “It’s a contract,” she said, “They own the land.”

One of many development projects in Black Diamond that will remake the community.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

But the City Council has a strategy: It turned the fight over the development into a fight over the city budget. Because whoever controls the purse strings controls oversight of the massive development.

There’s a crucial meeting to try to reach a compromise Thursday night. Mayor Benson said she’ll have to start planning how to shut down the government as early as next week if the two sides can’t agree on a budget at that meeting. She said the consequences could be severe.

Black Diamond Mayor Carol Benson
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

“You cannot run a city without a budget, period,” she said, then listed off all the services that would shut down: water, sewer, building inspections. There’d be no police or fire fighters.

“There’s never been a city that’s gone through this in the state of Washington before,” she said.

Black Diamond City Councilmember Brian Weber doesn’t like being painted as the obstacle to compromise.

“It’s not my intention to have a city government shutdown,” he said. Weber said he submitted a new version of the budget (an amended budget, technically, he said), which included more funding to watchdog the developer. But, he said, the mayor vetoed his budget. That puts the whole shutdown in the mayor’s court, according to Weber. “The mayor’s the only one who can make that call,” he told me.

Black Diamond City Councilmember Brian Weber
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

At this point, it doesn’t seem like the two sides are getting any closer. The City Council meetings are still a mess. “It’s like City Council meets Jerry Springer,” Weber said, “and how do we get our city business done when there’s this constant …”

This is where, in the radio version of this story, we bring you the drama of the City Council meeting:

“Don’t give me a dirty look,” said one council member.

“I’m not giving you a dirty look!” yelled out another.

Growth is an emotional topic. All over the region, people are having heated conversations about it.

At the political level, most cities work out their differences without all the shouting and drama. That’s according to Jim Doherty, of the Municipal Research and Services Center. It’s a nonprofit research organization serving local governments in Washington. He said both sides in this debate have asked his team for advice about how to resolve their intractable dispute.

“We do sometimes see that type of a clash where people want to stake out their position and aren’t willing to compromise,” he said. “But compromise is the basis of all democratic government.”

Doherty said when officials don’t compromise, people eventually vote them out of office. In Black Diamond, the mayor and two City Council members are up for reelection this fall.

One small part of the Oakpointe development under construction in Black Diamond.
Credit KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott

Meanwhile, on the edge of town, the developer is preparing for action. It scraped clean a giant patch of land and brought in job shacks, construction equipment and giant piles of gravel. Soon, there will be hundreds of new foundations on this land, then houses, then people. And after that, officials who want to be elected or re-elected here will have a whole new set of doors to knock on.

Joshua McNichols can be reached at jmcnichols@kuow.org. Have a story idea? Use our story pitch form.